When you think of “false prophets”, what images come to mind? A smooth-talking charlatan or belligerent madman? Deliberately deceptive or delusional? Instilling false hopes or, conversely, fear-mongering? In the Bible, we read repeatedly of the conflicts between the prophets who were unpopular, yet channeled the true voice of God, and the ones, whose words were appealing, but the message was false. Today’s Old Testament lesson describes the clash between Jeremiah and the false prophet called Hananiah, and illustrates just how difficult the task of discernment is.
On the surface, Hananiah, whose name means "Yahweh is gracious," seems to epitomize an ancient Israelite prophet: he perform symbolic acts, uses the standard language such as, "Thus says the Lord" and the divine "I", and comes from an established lineage. The text doesn’t even label him as a "false prophet", leaving that decision to the readers to make based solely on the words he preaches. But he sounds so believable (and hopeful!), that even Jeremiah himself hesitates for some time before he chooses to refute him.
To understand the historical backdrop to this situation, let’s recall the events of the 6th century BC. King Nebuchadnezzar leads a series of successful military incursions into Judah -- the southern remnant of the previously flourishing kingdom of Solomon. Tragically split 150 years previously, its northern part, henceforth referred to as “Israel”, was conquered by Assyria. First, Nebuchadnezzar deposits Judah’s king Jehoiachin, and installs his uncle Zedekiah as its last king. The surrounding kingdoms (Edom, Moab, etc.) are also gradually subjugated. Most of their power and wealth has now been carried away, but they are not yet completely destroyed. Where Assyria razed and assimilated, Babylon merely enslaves. However, that also leaves the door open for plotting revolts in the hope of overthrowing Nebuchadnezzar’s regime, and for the false prophets to support such ideas.
But early in the reign of Zedekiah, Jeremiah told the Judahites that the “yoke” of Babylon is precisely what would save them from the fate of their northern neighbour. The choice was theirs: resist Babylon and fall under its indomitable power; or submit, and watch their elites (as well as the sacred Temple accoutrements) go into 70 years of exile. But, the second option carried the hope of freedom for their grandchildren, restoration of the nation, and rebuilding of the Temple. It reminds me of Noah’s ark, in which the small remnant of the creatures was imprisoned, waiting to be free to rebuild the earth. Or of course, of an earlier episode in the Israelite’s own history that took place in Egypt. In any case, promulgating such messages at the time did not make Jeremiah a man popular “in his hometown”.
Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon”, delivered some time prior to the incident with Hananiah, announced the impending destruction and was at first taken for false prophecy and treason. Jeremiah faced execution. However, for the time being, the voices of reason had prevailed and reminded the rest that approximately 100 years prior, another prophet, Micah had caused king Hezekiah to repent and thereby bring about a temporary restoration of the nation. Jeremiah still remained at risk as he persisted in his work. It is at this point that we meet him at the court of the king in our today’s reading, when he performs one of his many famous symbolic acts to support his words by a visual aid.
He makes a bunch of wooden yokes to send over to the neighboring kings through their emissaries, who are now convened in Jerusalem plotting another revolt against Babylon. He instructs these nations to admit that Nebuchadnezzar’s “yoke” is Yahweh’s will for each of them, and that to submit to it is the only way forward for safety and survival. The poor man even spends many days wearing one himself. Undoubtedly one of the oldest words in the lexicon of animal husbandry, a yoke is used in the Scriptures with two shades of meaning. On the one hand, a pair of oxen working in unison stands symbolizes productive sharing of labour (e.g., as used by Jesus and Paul). However, the opposite connotation of "bondage" is also frequently seen, as it is used by Jeremiah here.
Not everyone in Judah is ready to accept this reality, and the words of false hope given by Hanahiah are a balm to the hearts bearing such sentiments. For in Hananiah's vision of the future, Judah's restoration is just around the corner; everything would be back to normal within two years. His prediction even sounds quite reasonable, as at the time Nebuchadnezzar was occupied in battle against Egypt, paid little attention to his client-states, and was rumoured to be weakening.
Having had the experience of false accusations, Jeremiah doesn’t jump up to his defence. He waits for an insight from God; and only then, with a note of sarcasm, he replies that he would be delighted if Hananiah's vision came to be, but… what about all the previous prophets that prophesied calamity over prosperity? God had sent Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and Nahum to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He had also sent Jonah to the empire of Assyria. All of them warned of tragedy and disaster if the people did not turn to God. Such warnings reach all the way back to Moses, who recorded his "Blessings and Curses". Hananiah ignores this response, and dares to physically relieve Jeremiah of the yoke he is wearing. But, in two years Hananiah is dead, and Jeremiah is proven to be right by the course of history.
I’ve never preached on this passage before, nor do I recall hearing it in my Anglican circles. A quick internet search revealed that it is favoured in denominations that consider themselves to be “right”. Certainly, it is an example of a sharp confrontation over what it means for the people to discern the word of the Lord in a particular situation; as such, it is suitable for those types of institutions that tend to pit themselves both against the secular world and fellow Christians. Such pastors have employed a bold analogy in likening themselves to Jeremiah, who is supposedly using here the principle of “sola scriptura”... formulated about two thousand years later (!) Of course, even in our church settings deliberations over “mere” administrative, programmatic, logistical, and worship plans do come up, and we do try to find our way forward by considering the weight of our scripture and tradition, and current insight.
But the problem is that in our world, we cannot equate the problems that befall us (war, conflicts, pandemics) with the punishment for the sins of those who are “wrong” (i.e., not us). The Bible interprets the Babylonian captivity as the time of reckoning for Judah’s national sin, and Nebuchadnezzar - as the mere instrument of correction. From this perspective, Hananiah’s error was in encouraging a sin of rebellion - for if Nebuchadnezzar’s power was “god-ordained”, then standing up to him entailed disregarding God’s authority. Yet, ours is a much more “grey” world as compared to the archetypal representation of reality offered by the scriptures. We have trouble determining with certainty even the natural causes of disasters in our world (e.g. climate change, coronavirus, systemic injustice), let alone attributing them to God’s activity, as the ancients would do. But of course, there are still things we can learn from this clash of the two prophets when we consider these crises to have spiritual results, rather than causes.
The first thing to note is that Hananiah redefined this foreign domination from being deliberately caused by God into something that he merely allowed, taking the element of repentance out of the equation. While we, similarly, cannot agree that God causes or even allows us to grieve, we should still accept repentance as something God desires for us - not as a way to please some capricious god of our imagination, but because a sincere change in us is what is needed to drive improvement in the world; to bring about the first blessings of the Kingdom of God to this world. This is why the Bible contains numerous warnings regarding the messages of peace that lack repentance. With the passing of time, Hananiah’s death and the military progress of Babylon had to have given Jeremiah’s prophecies much more weight. But it did not produce a general repentance in the nation, and the course of history remained unaltered. We must take heed of this narrative as a warning that passive complacency on a personal level leads to a decline on the systemic one. Do we hear the voices from our own media screens, promising that “everything will be back to normal”, once… once the right vaccines are found, once the police are dissolved, once the greenhouse emissions are curbed… Indeed, someone might one day do all the “right” things; but will we ever amend our own lives?
Second, let’s carry with us from today’s story the visual metaphor of a “yoke”. Sometimes, like Judah, we must put on a yoke of our own making, in consequence for our own actions. At other times, like Jeremiah, we wear a yoke that we do not deserve - maybe, because God puts it on our shoulders, but more likely, because most issues of this world result from its brokenness, rather than God’s will directly. My final, hopeful thought for us today is that regardless of whether God caused Israel to fall into Babylon’s hands, God did ensure that the Israelites benefited over their long-term exile in that land: they built houses, planted gardens, and raised multi-generational families, just as Jeremiah said they would. We, too, are merely sojourners in this world, though we enjoy its many blessings. As we hang on to the expectation of joining Jesus one day in our forever home, may we remember that in this life, every one of us is “yoked” to something. Jesus said,
“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt 11:29-30).
The two oxen who are chosen to pull the same load share a yoke -- of these, one is older, better trained, and hardy from years of routine; paired to him is a younger ox, full of potential, but unaccustomed to the routine as of yet. Thereby, the seasoned ox leads and draws harder, while the younger one is given the chance to grow in skill and fitness. Let us then learn to accept the yoke of our scripture and tradition, as we, with the help of our spiritual mentors, grow in the skill of discerning truth from falsehood and cultivate endurance that is based in faith. Thereby, may we attain peace in our earthly journeys, which surpasses all understanding.